As a young child we lived in a major Jewish area of the city. We had several synagogues and kosher restaurants and Jewish schools as well as public schools in which a majority of the pupils were Jewish.
It was a comfortable life among our own people. Our neighbor in the next house had been chief rabbi of a city in Sweden. I enjoyed walking to the shul with him on late afternoons. He taught a class of old men, mostly Yiddish speaking, and I, a boy of 14, sat among them, mesmerized by the gentle voice of Rabbi Jacob Zuber.
And then, in January 1948, four months before the independence of the State of Israel, the fifty-four year old rabbi was murdered by teen-agers who tried to rob him and found only coins in his pocket. The entire congregation of Beth HaMidrash HaGadol was overflowing with mourners and friends who were in shock at the brutal killing of a beloved rabbi.
His death was not attributed to anti-Semitism but rather to an attempted robbery gone bad. The criminal youth, having found no money on his person, beat him and knocked him to the ground where he died. I don’t know if his murderers were ever found by the local police. But even now, 69 years later, I still remember how he held my hand as we walked to the shul together.
Shortly after that, I had changed schools and had to walk a distance through hostile Christian streets. Cries of “Jew boy” were words I heard daily. And in school, the non-Jewish pupils would steal my lunch and I would be hungry until I returned home late in the afternoon.
Then they discovered another way of humiliating me. They told me that if I walked on their streets I would have to pay small coins for the “privilege” of not receiving a beating. Each morning, before I left for school, I asked my father for a few coins. I never told him the reason. But each school day which ended at three o’clock I searched for streets that I thought would be safe for me to walk home. To no avail. It seems that the ring-leader of the Christian boys, ages 15-16, had posted a comrade on each of the streets in the neighborhoods through which I would have to pass.
One day, the coin fell out of a hole in my pocket and when I approached the street I needed, the gang leader demanded that I pay. When I explained to him that I had lost the coin, he hit me severely causing my nose to bleed.
When I arrived at home, my mother saw my bloody face and coat and asked what had happened. I told her the whole long story. The next day, my brave mother walked to the Catholic church where the bullies worshipped and asked to speak to a priest.
She told him all the details of how her young Jewish son was tortured daily by young boys from his church. She asked for his help to speak to those boys and to urge them to refrain from harming me and demanding money from me.
The priest’s reply, as told to me by my mother, shocked me for years. He said, “Madam, there is nothing I can do for you. Your people killed our God”. My mother left the church building and could not walk fast enough to get home.
A few months later the State of Israel was re-born after two thousand years. Jews rushed out of their homes and we danced on the streets and sang Hatikvah to the original words: ‘Lashuv la-aretz, aretz avotainu, l’ir ba David, David chana” ( I always wondered who David and “Chana” were.)
Shortly afterwards, we moved to a nearby city whose population was predominantly Jewish. We had a fine home, eight rooms and a very large garden. It was a paradise in comparison to the home which we had left.
In the high school, our teachers were Christians but very warm and welcoming to Jewish students. And in the three years in which I attended that school there was never once any anti-Semitic incidents.
But the experiences of my early youth, my beatings and humiliation, the murder of the beloved Rabbi Zuber, remain as bitter memories as does the words of an ignorant Catholic priest, “Your people killed our God”.